Billy Kenoi, past mayor of Hawai’i County
Hawai’i Pacific University
May 21, 2014
Billy Kenoi (1968-2021) was the beloved mayor of Hawai’i County from 2008-2016. He speaks about the drive and hard work that it takes to accomplish the achievement of graduating from university. He tells the graduates how it was not advantages or innate talent that led to his success but his relentless dedication to his goals. Additionally, Kenoi preaches the value of giving back this knowledge and carrying aloha with them as they go out into the world. The former mayor delivers this speech inflected with Hawaiian slang and Hawaiian Pidgin, connecting to his audience without abandoning his personality and identity.
It is an honor and privilege to be here: I’d like to say ‘aloha’ to President Dr. Geoffrey Bannister, to the chair of the board of trustees, Dr. Michael Chun, to all the distinguished faculty here at Hawai’i Pacific University, and to all of you – the 2014 graduates of Hawai’i Pacific University. 31 states, 36 countries here at the 82nd commencement.
I just want to congratulate all of you for having the courage to dream and the determination to make those dreams come true. Henry Ford once said, “Whether you believe you can or you can’t, you’re right.” In other words, local style, “No such thing no can, okay? Always can!” The only thing you gotta figure out, that you already did because you got your degree and you’re here for graduation, is “how can?” right? Because always can.
Any obstacle, hurdle, or barrier is just meant to go over, around, or through. And when any of you question when further challenges arise, just remember today. Remember this feeling of accomplishment and achievement; relish it, embrace it, and rub it all over. Because any time you doubt yourself, remember what got you here. Remember – you dreamed. You dreamed and set a goal.
You had a goal of acquiring higher education, which is the great equalizer of our society. Higher education opens the doors to the potential and possibilities of your life. I’m here to tell you it’s true, not just because I did catch a couple degrees, not because I had a 1.8 GPA out of high school and they told me when I was going to college, they told me “Easy Kenoi. Maybe you gotta throttle back some of that ambition and dreams.” I’m here to tell you guys – no listen to them. Because next thing you know, anything is possible!
You guys, it’s the dream – you had it. But you realize to get there, you had to do a couple things, and you did. One where you had to work hard. Nobody gave you this degree you are about to come up here and celebrate. You earned it; you worked for it, and you realized the harder you work, the better you do. The more you put in, the more you get out – and that will remain true the rest of your life. Whatever you did to get to today, just keep doing that. Just keep doing that. And one more thing that you did to get to your dreams: none of you, on all of you, made sure you never ever gave up. And I’m sure every single one of you has a story to tell about perseverance.
In Hawai’i, we call that paahana – just diligence, just hard work, never ever giving up. Success it’s said is just getting up one more time than you fall. And all of you continue to believe in your dreams, continue to work hard.
And I just want to share with all of you that now that you have that degree from a center of academic excellence in the Pacific, what do you do with it? Maya Angelou, the great American poet, once said, “When you get, give. When you learn, teach.” I’m here just to share with you, all of you, this gift that you’ve earned rightfully through your hard work and determination: share it. Give it. Celebrate it. The more you give, the more you get.
And I just want to say to all of you, that aloha – kindness, compassion. Sometimes we define success by our job titles, by the house we own, the cars we drive, or the influence or power we might wield one day. But I’m here to tell you the people I look up to, the people I admire, the people I revere, are humble, are kind, are compassionate, are sincere. Take your education, take your dreams, and take your life and go out there – but most importantly, share the aloha. Share the kindness, the aloha spirit that you learned while at HPU. Think about it – aloha. It doesn’t cost any money. It’s not like when you guys go out with your friends and the bill comes and you start doing the Hawai’ian haka, you know? “You get that? No, I thought you had that!” No – think about it! Love, aloha – it doesn’t cost any money, and it doesn’t take any effort. And the most amazing part? The more you give, the more you get. And the more you give, the more you have, and you can never ever run out.
So as we go out there and pursue our dreams and strive for excellence, let us remember that simple, simple value. And I’m here to tell you, to stand before of all of you and to tell you truthfully – no such thing no can.
When I told people I was gonna be the mayor of Hawai’i Island, they told me, “Hm, how do you plan on doing that?” When I told people I was gonna be a lawyer, they said, “Brother, you need one lawyer, you’re not gonna be one lawyer.” But you know what, I kept doing what I learned in college. I started at Hawai’i Community College because I couldn’t get into the university and certainly not HPU – sorry, brother.
But I went every day, hung out with good people, studied hard – just like all of you. Next thing you know, I graduated. Next thing I graduated with honors from a university on the east coast, and people tell me, “Ah boy, why you went to the University of Massachusetts at Amherst?” I said, “Because bro.” And when you go far away, people get confused, they think it’s like Harvard or MIT. “Hey bro, you in like Harvard, huh Billy? MIT? Yeah same thing, same thing, right down the road, right down the road.” Nah, nah, nah.
But you know what, I realize, “That’s what I’m gonna keep doing.” I went to law school and ended up being the commencement speaker of my law school class. And my parents – God bless them, rest in heaven – I know they were looking at me going, even my dad – God bless him – look at me going, “Hey boy, tell me the truth – is he cheating or what?” “Whoa dad! For real, for real!”
But all I did the rest of my life, up until now, was do what you just did. Just worked hard, wake up earlier than everybody else. I knew I wasn’t the smartest, I knew I never had any advantages on anybody, but I could work harder because I controlled that. And I believe that if you harder than everybody else, and you contain that – you have that – just keep doing what you did. And next thing you know, whoa, standing on the side of the road, shaka-ing everybody and they gave me the keys to the kingdom. The island I live on – I’m the mayor!
So! All of you! All of you! I’d just like to leave you with a couple of things:
One, from this great Hawai’ian American storyteller, Ralph Waldo Kamakawiwo’ole Emerson – I threw in the Kamakawiwo’ole because anybody that smart, that cool gotta be Hawaiian – but he said, “What lies behind us and what lies before us are tiny matters compared to what lies within us.” Remember that you guys. “What lies behind us and what lies before us are tiny matters compared to what lies within us.”
Say what you mean and mean what you say. My father told me, “Hey boy – don’t just think before you talk. Think and feel before you talk. That way, everything you say comes from your heart.” Whether people agree or disagree with what you say, at least you’re honest. So you guys, a not-a-Shakespearian, Pidgin English brother said, “No scared I’m go get em,” okay?
So I leave you guys with that. And finally, from a great Hawaiian scholar, Kamehameha the Great, before the Battle of Iao valley, in the face of overwhelming odds and numbers, he looked at all these warriors and yelled, “Imua e na poki’i a inu i ka wai ‘awa’awa, ‘a’ohe hope e ho’i mai ai,” which meant, “Go forward my brothers and sisters until you drink the bitter waters of battle, for there is no turning back.”
Congratulations Class of 2014 Hawai’i Pacific University! You earned it, you deserve it! Aloha!